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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 5, March 2007

Lifelong learner: A chat with Mary-Wynne Ashford

by Kirk Longpré

Originally a secondary school chemistry teacher, Dr. Mary-Wynne Ashford returned to University of Calgary to study medicine at 38 with three children in school. She practiced as a family physician for 11 years and specialized in palliative care. Ashford is past president of the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. She received her PhD from Simon Fraser University in 1997 where she studied the roots of violence. In the past, Ashford has received the prestigious Gandhi Award from Simon Fraser University, the Governor General of Canada’s medal twice, YWCA Women of Distinction Award, the YMCA Peace Medal, and the Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility Distinguished Physician Award.

Longpré: It seems that you are still an educator at heart.

Ashford: I have always loved teaching and have incorporated it in everything I do, from playing with children to practicing medicine. I studied medicine because I was fascinated by the field of psycho-neuro-biology. I wrote a column in the Calgary Herald about the funny things that happened behind the scenes at the zoo. As a result, I found myself intrigued to know more about what is hard-wired into human behaviour, and what is the result of socialization. In particular, I wanted to know more about why people make choices that don’t seem to be in their best interests. I found that being a family doctor gave me the deepest contact with people and the issues they were facing.

Longpré: You have been described as the epitome of a lifelong learner. From your perspective how might we, as educators, affect the quest to continually learn in our students.

Ashford: I am afraid that lifelong learning is something I can’t stop. I don’t set out to do it, I just find myself curious about many things. I think that as educators we are most effective when we make our students responsible for their own learning, and we support their interests and directions. I am a strong supporter of the alternative school programs that are student-directed. They support the student’s own creative initiatives and the teachers are willing to wait for the student to assume autonomy. The students usually respond by rising to new levels of competence. My own learning was transformed when I studied medicine at the University of Calgary because it is a non-competitive pass/fail school. That means that students receive a grade and if it is above the "minimal pass level" they get the grade of "pass." If they are below the mpl, they repeat the exam a month or so later, but they are given a mentor to help them in the meantime. In the beginning, I was a very competitive student and found it difficult not to know where I stood in relation to the rest of my class. Finally I got the point—if you don’t feel secure about your knowledge, study the subject more! In other words, study for mastery, not to compete against others. This insight changed my life as I discovered the joy of learning in co-operative groups.

Longpré: What do you see as the most pressing issues facing students today?

Ashford: We are at a time of many planetary crises. Not only must students understand the challenges we face, but they have to engage in the work to save the planet. We have to be in there with them. Our role is to show them the positive directions that can be taken, not to overwhelm them with the magnitude of the problems. We can show them the difference each person makes in reducing fossil fuel consumption or building co-operative communities. We must continue to draw them into human relationships, help them find their spiritual direction, and connect them to the earth.

Longpré: What would you like to see happening in classrooms that is not happening now?

Ashford: There are outstanding schools and classrooms already, but they are not available to everyone. Here is a short list of what would be in my ideal school: Small schools, looser definition of grades so that students can advance in one area and move more slowly in another, more involvement with the whole community, especially parents. I would like to see a more compassionate response to kids living in poverty, i.e., second-hand clothes exchanges, showers and laundry facilities available, breakfast and lunch programs. Show kids they matter. Include service to others as a source of meaning in life incorporated into all grades. I would like to see all staff trained in building community, and then active leadership to support respectful processes in all relationships in the school. I would also like to see opportunities for students to care for animals. We have much to learn from Aboriginal cultures about how to support children in learning.

Longpré: How might educators, and, in particular, schools do a better job of addressing those issues?

Ashford: We need to teach young people skills to participate in a world that is facing unprecedented challenges. Perhaps our task might be defined as teaching children how to survive in an uncertain future. We need to build their physical strength and agility, their ability to appreciate the natural world and relationships with others. We need to help them recognize the real sources of meaning in their lives—relationships to others, meaningful life work, belonging to a group that needs them, rootedness in place, service to others, joy in beauty, response to hardship, recognition of a spiritual base to life.

When young people complain of boredom, they are telling us they are not able to tap into a source of meaning in life. The best response to their boredom is not to provide adult solutions and stimulation, but to support them in connectedness to themselves, to others, and to the earth.

Longpré: In your book, Enough Blood Shed: 101 Solutions to Violence, Terror and War you encourage people to take risks and apply their own creative energy to finding new ways to manage and resolve conflicts. Within a narrowly prescribed curriculum how do you envision that happening in a school setting?

Ashford: I think that the IRPs actually give plenty of room for creative exploration. As teachers, we can imprison ourselves in a textbook and teach in ways most teachers have long since outgrown–by photocopied handouts, rote examinations, and limited boundaries on the subject matter. But if we take the subject matter and engage the students in exploring it for themselves, we quickly find ourselves supporting exciting new questions. Critical thinking can be applied to any subject and can take a whole class into a worthwhile study of a subject instead of a stale repetition of lists of facts.

Longpré: In your book you also talk about the importance of stories. I wonder if you could elaborate on the role of storytelling to achieve social change?

Ashford: When we tell stories, we engage the listener in an emotional experience that may offer insights or alternative ways of thinking that help her or him understand the human experience. Through stories we can inspire and thrill young people with possibilities for their own future. Stories get past our resistance to learning something that is good for us.

Longpré: Your book also reveals a recurrent theme of ordinary people taking very courageous, enormously creative steps, with humour and total determination. Could you talk about the role of fun and humour in creating social change?

Ashford: Many of the challenges we face frighten us adults. Students do not want to hear more of how terrible the world is and how helpless they are. When we use fun and humour as we look at issues, we are able to bypass the fear and pessimism that is common in media, and instead we can enjoy taking steps toward change. It is important that projects taken up by youth should have a strong likelihood of success. By this I don’t mean that the outcome will necessarily be a global revolution, the elimination of nuclear weapons, or the end of global climate change, but rather that the student project will succeed in its own objectives. It may raise money for a school in Africa, or it may lead to production of a video, or a meeting with city council. The project itself must be doable by students. In taking our own small steps toward the greater goal, we tend to lose our sense of helplessness and regain our joy in engaging in life.

Longpré: When you were working on the 2001 www.BombsAway.org campaign, what did you discover about the power of web-driven strategy for engaging youth in social activism? Are there lessons for educators here?

Ashford: The Bombsaway campaign brought medical students into the anti-nuclear movement and used billboards and signs on the transit system to direct other young people to the web site. The web site gave information in small bites and encouraged the young people to take action against Canada’s involvement in the proposed US ballistic missile defence program. We learned that great billboards attracted enormous attention to the web site. We learned that we were weak in following up with continued excitement on the web site and that we needed more youth to take on the site.

Longpré: I wonder if you could comment on the role of women in helping create another world.

Ashford: The UN tells us that 70% of the workers for peace and social justice in the world are women. They also tell us that in conflict situations women are frequently going back and forth between groups in conflict and building relationships between the enemy groups. If the negotiating teams for a peace accord include women, the accord is more likely to hold. Cambodia is one example cited often. There is research now that shows a correlation between the status of women and the likelihood that a nation will resort to civil war. The more women elected to office, the longer women have had the vote, the more women in the work force and the smaller the average number of children, the less likely it is that the country will use armed violence in its internal conflicts. Women bring insights to conflict resolution and peace building that are different from the insights of men. When both genders are represented, the context of the negotiations shift and a nonviolent solution is more likely.

Longpré: Could you talk about the power of the arts to engage individuals and groups in social change?

Ashford: Social change involves all dimensions of culture, not just the intellectual. When we watch a movie or play, when we sing or dance together, we are moved in a different way than when we attend a lecture. I remember watching women in Africa singing, dancing, and laughing as they told us horrifying stories about apartheid in South Africa.

We must take the issues seriously, but not ourselves.

Longpré: How do you respond to an individual who says. "But what can I do?"

Ashford: Above all, I try not to tell them what to do. Sometimes I have to bite my tongue, but it is important to draw out from them what they like doing. Tell them that no one can tell them what to do, but perhaps they can think of some way to use the passion they have in a way that will make a better world. They will come up with their own idea and they are far more likely to do it because they own it.

Longpré: To conclude, do you have any final thoughts you would like to pass on to educators?

Ashford: I think teaching is the most important thing we do in life, whether we are in the school system or outside it. Our most important teaching is how we live our own life.

Longpré: Thank you for your time.

Kirk Longpré is a teacher-librarian at Mount Douglas Secondary School in Victoria.

Reprinted from The Advocate, newsletter of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association.


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